Ringing the Changes

Ringing the Changes

Dangling dangerously from a blue crane, the bronze bell departed its five-hundred-year-old home in the belfry of St Martins. Words not usually uttered in the confines of a churchyard drifted on the icy January wind to the nursing home standing across the broad Georgian street. The springs on the flatbed lorry groaned as the bell, at last, safely settled on it.

The Reverend Paddy, sitting at the third-floor window in the nursing home, looked down on the bell’s final journey. Nobody knew and perhaps didn’t care if he could understand what was going on around him. That is nobody except Theresa Rothem, a cleaner in the home.

Thirty years ago, Paddy officiated at her marriage. He’d told her then, as she listened to the peel, of the times the bell had rung out on great occasions like the end of both World Wars and how the muffled sound tolled for the passing of George V1. Paddy was proud of his great bell.

During the past seven years, he’d slowly slipped from being a much-loved elderly gentleman around town, through being a retirement home resident, into this nursing home for the elderly mentally infirm. For Paddy, today would be the last chapter in a long life of dedication to the service of others.

The bell had peeled for the christening of a baby boy from the manor. This boy had now grown up to be the youngest Prime Minister since William Pitt. The manifesto of his government had promised to do something about the imbalance in the population. People were living too long because of the advances in medical science and the economy was suffering. It was such a popular policy that the party won a massive majority. The disenfranchisement of the over seventies may have helped.

The euthanasia law had the tacit approval of the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

There had already been living wills. The new rules took care of those who didn’t make such provisions and became too feeble to make one. Paddy had not made a living will.

A tribunal composed of a judge, a magistrate and a doctor sitting at the Castle in Winchester heard Paddy’s case three days ago.

On the afternoon of the hearing, Theresa sat in the huge tribunal room. This place used to be the Assizes for Hampshire. Many a poor wretch had gone from here to the gallows. Now it was being used again to send people to the next life.

‘Is there anyone here to speak on behalf of the subject?’ said Judge Jeffreys as he brushed dandruff off his black gown.

Theresa found her courage. She struggled to stand up in the pink suit that she’d bought at M and S eleven years ago, ‘Please sir, he isn’t a subject, he’s Paddy, my old vicar. I want to speak for him.’

‘Are you a relative?’ asked the judge, wiping his bifocals.

‘No sir. But his wife died twenty years ago, and they didn’t have any children, so he hasn’t got anyone to speak for him.’

‘Who are you?’ The cadaverous Doctor Hugo Todie queried. Taking a polo mint from his grey suit jacket, he popped it into his mouth closing the thick black moustache under his hooked nose like a portcullis.

‘Please sir, I’m Theresa Rothem. I work at the nursing home. I’ve known Reverend Paddy for over thirty years.’

‘Have you any documents authorising you to speak for him?’ asked the magistrate, Mrs Ruth Lesley JP, carefully rearranging her blue rinse in the reflection of the burnished desk.

‘No Ma’am.’

‘Thank you, sit down please,’ said the judge. He looked at his two colleagues sitting in their high-backed chairs. The only other people in the room were an official typist in a short black skirt taking down notes of the proceedings and a young reporter more interested in what was beneath the black skirt than the hearing.

Papers were signed and passed between the three tribunal members.

The judge put on a solemn face, ‘The tribunal has read the medical reports in this case. Sadly, we are agreed that euthanasia is to be carried out in three days' time on the subject unless an appeal is lodged by a relative or someone with the legal authority to speak for him.’

‘Please, sir. Don’t, please don’t. He doesn’t have anyone to speak for him. I’ve already told you that,’ said Theresa, her eyes filling until the tears started to flow down her cheeks.

‘Next,’ said the judge.

Theresa caught the bus back to the nursing home. Her thoughts were frantic as she struggled to think how she could save Paddy.

Since the tribunal, Theresa had tried everything - writing to the King, talking on the local radio and even collecting a thousand signatures on a petition. All this was to no avail. Now it was the day for euthanasia.

Theresa stood next to Paddy looking out of the window. She squeezed his shoulder and smoothed his thin grey hair.

‘Paddy, she said gently, ‘I need to communicate with you. I need to know if you can understand me.’

Paddy still looked out of the window without any sign of having understood.

‘Paddy, if you can understand me, please would you blink your eyes twice to say yes.’ Still no response from Paddy.

‘Never mind,’ said Theresa with a sad sigh. ‘I think you can understand.’ She squeezed his shoulder again. They carried on watching the bell being fastened down on the lorry.

A white van pulled up outside the church with ‘Acme Carillon Systems’ painted on the side above the picture of a bell and a compact disc. The van was there yesterday. The driver had been doing some wiring inside the belfry. Theresa had never heard of a carillon system, but she guessed it was something to do with loudspeakers and taped bell sounds.

The Reverend Perrigream came out of the church door. Theresa could hear him talking to the van man, ‘How long before you can test the new system?’

‘About ten minutes,’ the van man suggested.

‘I’m really looking forward to hearing it. It’s about time we got rid of the old bells. You don’t need a bunch of geriatric campanologists either to operate this system, do you?’

‘No, you don’t,’ said the van man. ‘And you can’t tell the difference between the electronic system and the real bells.’

‘Splendid,’ said Perrigream pulling his collar up to his fat, pink face against the chill wind. He crossed the street and went into the nursing home.

Two nurses in crisp white trouser suits came into Paddy’s room. They gently lifted Paddy from his chair and laid him on the bed on top of the patchwork counterpane that Theresa had placed there. It had taken her three years to make it.

A white clock on the wall ticked the seconds by.

The tribunal judge, magistrate and doctor came into the room. The doctor wore a white coat and carried a well-polished walnut box about the size of a cigar packet.

Perrigream came in, out of breath from climbing the stairs.

The judge started the proceedings, ‘We have had no appeal and, therefore, we must carry out the act of euthanasia as decreed by law. Reverend, please say a few words.’

Perrigream, still out of breath, said the Lord’s Prayer.

Theresa tried to hold back her tears, but it hurt deep inside her stomach. She gave in and her eyes welled over sending tears running down her black face.

The doctor took a loaded syringe from his box. One of the nurses rolled up Paddy’s checked dressing gown sleeve exposing his skinny right arm. Theresa held his left hand in hers and gently kissed it.

As the doctor leant over, injecting Paddy in the vein at the crook of his elbow, the carillon bell system was tested.

‘That’s my new electronic system. You can’t tell the difference between that and the real thing,’ said Perrigream proudly.

‘I can, can you Paddy?’ Theresa asked, squeezing his hand.

Paddy blinked twice.

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